How Living in London Has Taught Me What I Value

“Some men are born to own; can animate all their possessions. Others cannot; Their owning is not graceful; seems to be a compromise of their character; they seem to steal their own dividends.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

A minimalist I am not; I love “stuff.” I enjoy material objects and the process that goes into finding interesting ones, choosing them, and caring for them, but simultaneously and paradoxically also have a weird sort of detachment to stuff. Growing up in a military family meant that every couple of years, we would uproot and move everything we owned into a new home. When this (frequently) involved shifts between countries and even continents, we would often have to downsize our possessions to meet weight limitations. Going through a few rounds of this has meant that I have had plenty of experience in sorting out the things I value from the things that are just nice to have. This is something I have had cause to examine even more in recent years as I’ve tried to publicly dissect my relationship with consumerism and money.

On a fairly recent post, faithful Friend of the Blog Caitlin commented,

“I have always valued creative freedom and financial security over anything I could buy otherwise. Both come at a cost — i.e. NOT buying a lot of stuff and experiences I would very much enjoy because I had to save money and live frugally.”

Her note triggered a realization for me that I have alluded to before but not fully teased out before: most of the things of value that Jeff and I own, things we have spent our money on and would mourn if lost, could reasonable be hustled out the door at very short notice. Or as I put it in a reply,

“Reading your follow up made me consider again how few “big” items Jeff and I own. If we needed to, we could throw almost everything we own of value into suitcases and just GO. The major casualties would be a couple of pieces of furniture which would cause a pang, but we don’t have a whole household that we’d lose in an emergency or disaster. I think our purchasing history reflects the idea that what we really value at this season in our lives is mobility.”

When we moved to London, we did so with two suitcases a piece. While difficult, it was doable. If we ever leave London, I’d hope to take quite a bit more than that with us, but if I needed to flee with only basic luggage, I suspect I could. Mobility. I’m not sure if that reflects an inner, enviable flexibility in the face of possible adversity, or a deeper need to be able to run away from present circumstances if necessary (possibly both?) but whatever it is, I have clearly chosen to build key aspects of our life around it as a concept.

Living in London for over five years has given me many chances to evaluate what else I value in this season.

Being in the thick of things. London is a tough town but I still get a thrill living in a place where so much happens. I enjoy watching the news and knowing some of it is taking place just up the river. I like watching films and TV shows and being able to identify specific familiar locations, sometimes down to the very neighborhood and streets they were shot on. I love living in a region where interesting art is being created and important cultural discussions are being argued. It’s not always comfortable, but it is never boring.

Ease of cultural access. Whether it’s food, entertainment, easy travel to most of Europe, Africa, and the Near East, or just street culture, London is a smorgasbord. Having lived (and not thrived) in monocultures before, I have a hard time envisioning ever living in one again. Multiculture is inherently more complex and difficult to navigate at times, but I find it enriching and rewarding.

Possibility and the ability to change my mind. Whether it’s been in matters of community or career, living in circumstances that have allowed me to pick a new direction is incredibly valuable to me. I have lived in locations and circumstances that were stultifying; while London might stress me out, it has never bored me or restricted my choices. I recognize what a privilege this is and I’m grateful for it every day.

Memories and experiences. Most of the things that would make it into an emergency suitcase are small items with some kind of emotional value: a teddy bear that has been with me literally since the day I was born, my wedding jewelry, my passport.

Reading over this list, I am struck by how much of this feels transient in some way–which is odd because we have no plans to move at any point in the foreseeable future. We have invested a lot to live where we do and are working through the process of making this a permanent home. And yet, whether it’s change or excitement or (again) mobility, what London seems to offer that I value most is options. Living and working here has not always been easy, in fact it’s often been exhausting and bloody difficult, like a choose-your-own-adventure book with very grown up and terrifying stakes.

London has never offered me much safety or assurance, it has never guaranteed me security or stability. But living here has taught me that those are not always my highest priorities. Living here has taught me that disappointment, and even occasional existential despair, is survivable. It’s taught me whose good opinions I truly care about, and whose can go hang. It’s taught me how to esteem my money and my own work. Living here has honed and focused more professional and personal priorities than I can count. It’s taught me a lot about what I truly value and helped to teach me to align my life accordingly, and that is truly priceless.


3 thoughts on “How Living in London Has Taught Me What I Value”

  1. Thanks for the quote!

    Most of this could be re-posted on my blog about living near NYC.

    While I have never lived in one of its 5 boroughs (and that’s OK with me), I’m within 40 minutes striking distance by car or train and that allows me all the access I want and can afford — with our housing costs fixed at $2,000 a month, which would buy me a studio apartment in Queens — not a spacious 1 bdrm with river view, pool and tennis court.

    I’ve joked with friends who’ve moved here that we didn’t move to the States but to New York. I have no hunger to try any other American city or town…have been to many and have friends in many and am aware of the limitations of each. Diversity here is 100% normal, as I like it — and lived with in Paris, Toronto and Montreal.

    One of the things I value about our suburban perch (and trainfare is now $25 RT into the city, so not cheap) is having city and country easily accessible in 2 directions. We are 6 hrs to Montreal, 5.5 hrs’ drive to the Ontario border, and these matter as well, since I dislike flying.

    I also deeply value — as you rightly do — having carved out a place for myself and my skills in a CRAZY competitive city, up against people with generations of social capital and Ivy degrees. I was gobsmacked when Jose met the editor of Marie Claire recently at an event and mentioned a piece they’d run in 2011 of mine (she didn’t even assign it) and she said I LOVED that story.


    Who would have though this possible? Not me.

    1. What a great boost of confidence that must have been!

      You really have an enviable situation, but I so appreciate the perspective you offer about how you too have to make competing demands and priorities work. Everyone really is just trying to their best to get through life as well as they can and learning what you value and how to order your life accordingly is so important.

      1. Well, it shocked me. She’s someone I’ve watched on TV (not Joanna Coles) and Jose said she ‘s lovely in person — so he suggested we have lunch and (!) she agreed. Wow. That would be cool. I tend to give up on the Big Fancy Places because they are impossibly clique-y (funny, since many would call the NYT that and I write for them a lot) so this was pleasant, indeed.

        I’ve also been here six times longer than you’ve been in London — and have weathered 3 recessions, a surprise divorce, job loss, etc. It WILL get easier the more you’re known and established there.

        When I moved to the States I literally felt like a raindrop hitting the ocean — entering a nation with 10 TIMES the population, how could I possibly make my name? I have.

        You can too.

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